Directed by Gabriel Clarke and John McKenna.
THE PLOT: Directors Gabriel Clarke and John McKenna delve behind the scenes of Steve McQueen’s passion project, ‘Le Mans’. The film, shot in 1970 and released in 1971, was intended to be McQueen’s love letter to race-car driving, but the lack of a script led to the film going $1.5 million over budget, being delayed by months, and original director John Sturges walking off the project. For the first time, audiences get to find out what exactly went wrong.
THE VERDICT: There have long been rumours and accounts that Steve McQueen was difficult to work with, and this new documentary does nothing to dissuade audiences of that notion. ‘Steve McQueen: The Man & Le Mans’ starts off with examining just how ‘Le Mans’ came to be, and why Steve McQueen wanted to be a producer on the project – in short; control. It is precisely this control that led to the film being a financial and dramatic disaster, and the turning point in McQueen’s marriage and his love for racing.
According to legend, over 1 million feet of film were shot for Le Mans, but were presumed missing or destroyed. Somehow, the filmmakers behind this documentary got their hands on it, and it is this that forms the backbone of the film. The rest of the story is told through the eyes of those who were there at the time (or their children), including McQueen’s wife at the time Neile Adams McQueen, their son Chad McQueen, McQueen’s mechanic Haig Altounian, screenwriter Alan Trustman and racing drivers Derek Bell, Jonathan Williams and David Piper, the latter of whom lost part of his leg after an accident during filming.
The story that emerges is one of passion and control; there is little doubt that Le Mans was a film that McQueen felt strongly about, but it was precisely this love that led to him being unable to surrender to the original director John Sturges to walk off the film. As well as this, the film examines the Hollywood system at the time that le mans was made; according to the documentary, it was not uncommon for a film to start shooting without a script, but McQueen constantly turned down those offered to him – eventually ending the writing career of Alan Trustman, who says after he refused to write the film the way McQueen wanted ‘the phone stopped ringing’ – and more than six weeks into the shoot, there was still no script to be seen. Although this may not necessarily be new information about McQueen – the rumours of him being unpleasant to work with are consistent – but the idea that as a star, he held so much power that this was able to go on for several weeks is definitely a surprise. Add to this, McQueen’s marriage falling apart and his fear that the Manson Family was out to get him after the murder of Sharon Tate and her friends, and the man who was steering the ship was seemingly in no fit state to do so.
In all, ‘Steve McQueen: The Man & Le Mans’ is a film for the fans of McQueen and his doomed passion project, as well as those with a curiosity about the movie business. The footage uncovered of the shoot is incredible, the interviews are engaging and seemingly honest, but there are times when ‘Steve McQueen: The Man & Le Mans’ meanders as much as ‘Le Mans’ does, and although the information is interesting and the storytelling engaging, a tighter edit and some faster pacing may have led to a stronger film.
RATING: 3.5/5
Review by Brogen Hayes

Steve McQueen: The Man & Le Mans
Review by Brogen Hayes
  • filmbuff2011

    It’s been 35 years since his untimely death at the age of 50, but Steve McQueen, the King of Cool, still stands out like a latter-day James Dean. A man’s man, a maverick, a driven actor and a Hollywood icon, McQueen met his cinematic Waterloo on Le Mans, much like fellow icon John Wayne did with The Alamo. Steve McQueen: The Man & Le Mans is a documentary from co-directors Gabriel Clarke and John McKenna. It sets out to understand more about what drove McQueen to be the driving force behind 1971’s racing film Le Mans. It’s no secret that McQueen had a love of cars – and fast ones at that. The break-neck car chase in Bullitt (still never bettered onscreen) is a classic example of that. After successes in the 1960s like The Thomas Crown Affair, McQueen was in a position of power to produce his own films. He therefore set out to make the definitive racing film, dismissing rival film Grand Prix as ‘director John Frankenheimer playing with himself in public’. He went to Le Mans, France and brought a film crew and director John Sturges with him, with whom he had worked with on The Magnificent Seven and The Great Escape. But the big problem with Le Mans was the fact that there no real script to speak of. McQueen was more interested in shooting live footage in and around the racing cars at high speeds. The film ran overbudget and over-time and became more of a realistic documentary than a fully-formed narrative, even with several screenwriters beavering away. Strain was also put on his marriage, as his first wife Neile Adams got back at him for his frequent infidelities. Was Le Mans McQueen’s great folly? In truth, Le Mans isn’t that bad a film. It achieves a commendable level of in-your-seat realism but suffers storywise. This documentary is informative and engaging, with some startling behind-the-scenes footage of racing car crashes and never-before-heard audio excerpts of McQueen. But it’s also narrow in its focus, perhaps too narrow. ‘The Man’ part of the documentary feels a little glossed over, as if not to cause too much offence to McQueen’s family, which includes his cut-from-the-same-cloth son Chad. It’s as if Clarke and McKenna were too much in awe of the King of Cool to dent his reputation too much. But there are enough hints to suggest that McQueen could be difficult at times. His ego got in the way and he wanted things done his way, rather than anyone else’s. As a portrait of a determined actor trying something different and outside the studio system, Steve McQueen: The Man & Le Mans is worth seeing for film buffs and fans of McQueen. Maybe Clarke and McKenna could now make a more wide-ranging and rounded documentary on the man himself. ***